Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich will not serve a jail sentence following his guilty plea in the killing of 24 Iraqis in 2005, a military judge said Tuesday.
The announcement by Lt. Col. David Jones came after Wuterich took responsibility during his sentencing hearing at Camp Pendleton for the killings in the Euphrates River town of Haditha and expressed remorse to the victims’ families.
Jones said he had planned to recommend 90 days in the brig — the maximum as requested by the prosecution — but that the plea bargain approved by Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser had called for no jail time.
“It’s difficult for the court to fathom negligent dereliction of duty worse than the facts in this case,” Jones told Wuterich.
Wuterich, 31, was the last of eight Marines charged in the Haditha killings to have his case resolved. Six had the charges against them dropped, and one Marine was acquitted.
The lack of trial convictions in the Haditha case is likely to further inflame anti-U.S. sentiment in Iraq, as well as fuel criticism by some legal analysts of the 6-year-long investigation and prosecution.
A Marine Corps spokesman said Waldhauser would offer no public explanation of his decision to accept the plea bargain and stipulate that Wuterich receive no jail time.
A doctrine of military law says that “the conviction can be seen as the punishment,” Jones noted to jurors at the beginning of the court-martial proceedings.
On Monday, Wuterich pleaded guilty to negligent dereliction of duty; in exchange, manslaughter, assault and other dereliction charges were dropped.
In a strong, clear voice Tuesday, he addressed the court and the family members of the 24 Iraqis, including three women and seven children, killed by Marines in his squad.
“Words cannot express my sorrow for the loss of your loved ones,” Wuterich said. “I know there is nothing I can say to ease your pain.”
As the squad leader, Wuterich ordered his Marines “to shoot first, ask questions later” as they stormed two houses on Nov. 19, 2005, after a roadside bomb had killed one Marine and injured two others.
“When my Marines and I cleared those houses that day, I responded to what I perceived as a threat. And my intention was to eliminate that threat in order to keep the rest of my Marines alive,” Wuterich said. “So when I told my team to ‘shoot first and ask questions later,’ the intent wasn’t that they would shoot civilians, it was that they would not hesitate in the face of the enemy.”
No comment was made at the hearings Monday or Tuesday about what kind of discharge Wuterich will receive. He has been kept on active duty while the court case was underway.
Jones said he would recommend that Wuterich be reduced to a private, a recommendation that will be reviewed by Waldhauser, who is commander of Marine Forces Central Command and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.